Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Wigan 1-1 Arsenal (2-4 on pens): Imperfect, but enough

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So much of what football is about is defined by moments. Each team strives for 90 (or 120) minutes to make those moments count. Whether it’s a shot which ends up in the back of the net, a tackle, a block, a save, a killer pass – most games are about the battle to create or prevent those moments being decisive.

Winning too is one of those moments, and if you don’t allow yourself to enjoy it, or you insist on qualifying a success to the Nth degree then you’re doing yourself a disservice. You deny yourself the very point of it all. For example, criticism of Arsenal’s players celebrating a penalty shoot-out win because it was ‘just Wigan’ is entirely wide of the mark. You’re not simply celebrating a win over a Championship side, you’re celebrating getting to the cup final because you know just how much it means to the club for all kinds of reasons.

If you’d said yesterday that Arsenal were a team, crippled by injuries, struggling for form and under immense pressure, I don’t think anyone would have disagreed. Yet a performance utterly reflective of those traits seemed to come as a surprise to many who expected us to just turn up and roll Wigan over. I won’t even begin to touch on the people who, although nominally Arsenal fans, seemed to want us to lose yesterday for reasons I will never fathom. If your own agenda trumps the success of the team you claim to be a fan of, you might want to think about doing something else with your spare time.

None of which is to suggest that yesterday was some kind of glorious triumph, of course it wasn’t. It was, for most part, torturous, unpleasant and stomach churning, but in the end we did what we had to do. Perhaps not in the manner we’d all have liked, yet if you’ve been following this club for long enough you’ll know we rarely tend to do things the easy way. But what matters above everything else is that we’ve got an FA Cup final to look forward to.

I’ll happily admit that I enjoyed very little of the 90 minutes (bar Mertesacker’s equaliser), or the 30 minutes of extra time. Overall it was not a day that will go down in my scrapbook of great Arsenal moments, but when you look at the numbers, the suggestion that Wigan were better than us is a ludicrous one. In fact, I thought we fashioned enough moments to win the game – hitting the woodwork two or three times (?) – but due to the fact we had a player as raw as Yaya Sanogo up front we couldn’t make them count.

The early header really should have been a goal, and late in the game there was a cross from Ramsey which he got to the flight of but misjudged it and missed the ball completely when he should have poked it home. I want to make it very clear that I’m not being critical of Sanogo himself. You can’t condemn somebody for being so out of their depth. He didn’t pick the team, he did his best and tried hard, but football at this level is new to him and it’s obvious.

The criticism is that he’s all we’ve got when the manager wants to rest Giroud or he feels Giroud is not playing well enough. The substitution of Lukas Podolski, was a decision that was greeted with boos. Perhaps it’s hard to understand why the manager would remove an experienced international with so many goals to his name and leave on a youngster who has never scored for us, but that doesn’t take away from the fact the German was completely peripheral yesterday.

His reaction to being taken off, throwing a little strop, was not great, and maybe he needs to look at himself first and foremost. As I said to somebody last night, if he could play a game half as good as the one he talked or posted on social media he’d be Double Messi. The tactical inflexibility of Wenger has been something of a talking point lately, yet we went old school 442 with two strikers.

That Wigan’s penalty was conceded by Per Mertesacker seemed somewhat cruel. There’s no doubt it was a spot-kick but for Mertesacker, one of the season’s steadiest and most consistent performers, to give it was away felt like a bit of a cruel joke. Fabianski went the right way but couldn’t keep it out and for a long time it looked as if that was going to be enough. Gibbs came on for Monreal and immediately made a difference down the left hand side, and when Mertesacker equalised with just eight minutes to go, it felt like the universe had righted itself a little.

Although we hadn’t played well, we’d certainly had more of the game, created more, tried to attack and fashion chances, so to say it was a goal we didn’t deserve was completely wrong in my opinion. And how much did Per feel that? He must have been gutted to make that mistake, but he put it right, and he loved it. Arsenal’s character has been rightly questioned in recent weeks, we showed some yesterday.

You can’t complain that we don’t know how to grind out results then also complain when we grind out a result. Of course we’d all prefer Arsenal to be better, to play better, to perform better, but sometimes you just have to take what you can get. A starving man won’t complain when you give him a bowl of gruel, and that’s kind of where we are right now. Our need, above everything else, is that trophy, that piece of silverware. How we get it is not anywhere near as important as just getting it.

Extra-time came and went without much incident, although Oxlade-Chamberlain’s fizzer that cracked off the corner of the post and bar could have spared us the penalty shoot-out. And here’s another thing, the people who describe penalties as a ‘lottery’ are talking absolute bollocks. A lottery is something you have no control over, it’s arbitrary and random by its very nature. Penalties are a test of skill, of mental strength, character, and of footballing ability, and we passed that test with flying colours.

First of all, Lukasz Fabianski, who had little to do for most of the game, was brilliant. Although I still think it’s odd not to play your best team in every game, the manager’s decision to go with the elder of the Pole’s was entirely justified by his shoot-out heroics. He stopped Wigan’s first two penalties and that gave us the platform to win the game.

Yet we had also to count on four players to stand up and be counted under the most searing pressure (look at Sanogo here trying not to be sick!). Mikel Arteta, Kim Kallstrom, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla all duly obliged with rock solid spot-kicks against a keeper whose goal line antics were making me anxious, so who knows how they were feeling. They kept their nerve and fired us into the final. No doubt they would have been crucified if they missed, so they, along with the keeper, deserve the kudos this morning.

If Arsenal’s players celebrated raucously then they had every right to. There’s no need to qualify the moment with questions about the performance or the calibre of the opposition. We can analyse the shite out of it if you like, but the bottom line would be that despite the fact there wasn’t much to enjoy about the day as a whole, there’s a whole lot to like about the end result, and that genuinely is the only thing that matters right now.

I am no more or less concerned than I was beforehand about the state of the squad, its confidence, its quality, the manager (Amy’s piece in the Guardian is a great read) or anything else. I think those are issues that we’ve done to death and will do to death before the end of the season, I’m sure. Today though, after being put through the mill, I’m choosing to enjoy the fact that on May 17th Arsenal will be at Wembley to contest the cup final.

That’s my moment. Share it if you like. It’s good.

Till tomorrow.

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